American singer-songwriter Guy Clark passed away five years ago this month, on 17 May 2016, at the age of 74. I have used this space to extol other Americana musical artists, including Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Justin Townes Earle, The Highwomen, and Steve Earle. To my senses, only Bob Dylan surpasses the genius of Guy Clark’s songwriting.
As portrayed in the excellent 1976 documentary, Heartworn Highways, the home Clark shared in Nashville with his wife and sometime collaborator, Suzanne, was the mecca of aspiring musicians. His influence over more than a generation is audible, palpable, inescapable. Musicians admired Clark’s work. They also loved him.
In 2019, Earle produced a loving tribute of Clark covers, called simply, Guy. Clark’s songs have been covered by such luminaries as Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, The Highwaymen, Crowell, Emmylou Harris & John Prine, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Jeff Walker. A critically acclaimed biography, Without Getting Killed or Caught, was published by Tamara Saviano in 2016.
The trope is overused, to be sure, but Clark was a songwriter’s songwriter. He was a careful craftsman, telling stories in song with the economy of Hemingway and the narrative force of Steinbeck. With the sparest lyric, he set the story in motion. In “Anyhow I Love You,” for example, he wrote “I wish I had a dime for every bad time / But the bad times always seem to keep the change.” And in “L.A. Freeway”:
Throw out them L.A. papers
And that moldy box of Vanilla Wafers
Adios to all this concrete
Gonna get me some dirt road backstreets.”
Clark’s 1975 debut album, Old No. 1 (the cover of which featured a painting by Suzanne), already demonstrated these highly developed artistic virtues. In “She Ain’t Going Nowhere,” he begins:
Standin’ on the gone side of leavin’
She found her thumb and stuck it in the breeze
She’ll take anything that’s goin’ close to somewhere
She can lay it down and live it like she please
She ain’t goin’ nowhere, she’s just leavin’
She ain’t goin’ nowhere she can’t breathe in
And she ain’t goin’ home, and that’s for sure
Clark doesn’t tell us precisely why she’s leaving or where she’s going. But it doesn’t matter. We already know what’s going on. Clark paints a vivid picture of a woman who has suffered some trauma but is determined to start again. She is vulnerable but not fragile; battered but not beaten; disillusioned but resolved:
She’s not sitting down and cryin’ on her suitcase
She has no second thoughts by the road
But she’s got feelings that need some reparin’
And she did not give a damn that it showed
And we know that she is going to prevail against the odds:
And the wind had its way with her hair
And the blues had their way with her smile
And she had a way of her own
Like prisoners have a way with a file
“Instant Coffee Blues,” from the same album, similarly displays Clark’s ability to tell the story in its starkest form, giving us all we need—but no more than necessary—to fill in the details of the narrative:
Now he washed all the road dirt from his face and from his neck
And sat down at her table and she picked up his check
And she took him home for reasons that she did not understand
While him, he had the answers but he did not play his hand
We already know enough about the characters to anticipate the probable outcome of this encounter. And the next morning, it is confirmed.
She felt wholly empty like she’d felt every time
And he was feeling just the same, ‘cept he was tryin’ to make it rhyme
Time was of the essence so they both did their best,
To meet up in the kitchen feelin fully dressed
And the sad, sordid, brief encounter ends as abruptly as it started, to the tune of the most mundane domestic sound:
She just had to go to work, and he just had to go
And she knew where and he knew how to blow it off and so
They shot the breeze quite cavalier to the boilin’ of the pot
And sang the instant coffee blues and never fired a shot
Clark’s most famous song, “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” is an example of the many he wrote about his experience as a native Texan, born in the west Texas town of Monahans, and raised in the southeastern coastal town of Rockport (“salty and hard, it is stern as a knife,” as he described it in “South Coast of Texas”).
“Desperadoes” is a highly personal account of his real-life friendship with an old man—an oil field “wildcatter”—nearing the end of a colorful but ultimately failed life (“it was white port that put that look in his eyes,” he wrote about the man in another song):
And I’d play the Red River Valley
And he’d sit in the kitchen and cry
Run his fingers through seventy years of livin’
And wonder, “Lord, has every well I’ve drilled gone dry?”
We was friends, me and this old man
We was like desperadoes waiting for a train
Clark then tells the backstory of his romantic, school-of-hard-knocks education from the old man, who taught Clark “how to drive his car when he was too drunk to,” gave him “money for the girls,” and took him to the Green Frog Cafe, where all the old men played dominoes, lied about their lives, and called Clark “sidekick.” But the old man eventually goes the way of all flesh, and the song ends where it began:
And then the day before he died I went to see him
I was grown and he was almost gone
So we just closed our eyes and dreamed us up a kitchen
And sang another verse to that old song
Guy Clark was not a commercial superstar. While not opposed to earning a living as an artist, he resisted efforts to write music with an eye toward commercial success. But this is not to say that he was immune from the frustration of all artists who place the integrity of their work above the profits it might otherwise generate. Invoking the spirits of Tom Waits, Van Zandt (“full of angst and hillbilly haiku”), Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Jack Elliot, Clark wrote in “Cold Dog Soup”:
There ain’t no money in poetry
That’s what sets the poet free
I’ve had all the freedom I can stand
Cold dog soup and rainbow pie
All it takes to get me by
Fool my belly till the day I die
Cold dog soup and rainbow pie
I am grateful that Clark maintained his integrity as an artist, plying his craft for the sake of the art. The cultural value of his contribution to the American songbook is a richer legacy than any number of albums sold, or money generated. Born 6 November 1946; died 17 May 2016, may this music desperado have caught that train.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
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